Time Out explores the Liwa Desert with the Abu Dhabi 4x4 Club. Find out about off-roading clubs in UAE and one of the best places to go for it.
Time Out staff
Tents – check. Sleeping bags – check. Roll mats – check. Chairs – check. Lamps – check. Warm clothes – okay, we forgot our hoodie and thermals for the cold desert night we were warned about. Maybe we should have gone through the equipment list one more time.
We’re off to the northern edge of the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter), otherwise known as the Liwa Desert. There’s nothing we like more than an adventure, and we’re sure we’re about to have one. Our host for the weekend, Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi’s food and beverage manager and Abu Dhabi 4x4 Club marshal Christophe Perringerard, is ready and waiting with his Toyota Fortuner and its powerful V6 engine. After packing our equipment neatly into the boot, we set off to meet the rest of the AD4x4 members that will be forming the six-vehicle convoy travelling to the desert.
Many car games and camel sightings later, we arrive at Hameem Adnoc station at 12.30pm – the last stop before entering the dunes. With a full tank of petrol and plenty of cereal bars and water to keep us nourished, we find our entrance point to the Liwa desert – N22°56.876, E054°14.792.
Before we take on the dunes, the convoy stops to deflate the tyres on the 4x4s to 10-13 psi – a necessity for driving on sand. For driving on the road, tyre pressure of around 30 psi is optimal, but once on sand, tyres at this pressure would sink in and you’d get stuck very quickly. By reducing the pressure to 10 psi, the tyre’s footprint is increased, meaning there’s much less chance of getting stuck.
With the tyres deflated, our convoy of three Toyotas and three Jeeps begins snaking its way through the sand. One steep drop over the edge of a dune and we’re away, and it’s not long before our first incident. One of the Toyotas gets wedged in a hole having misjudged a dune, so it’s up to Christophe and his Fortuner to tow the vehicle back to safety.
Apparently this is a common occurrence, and even though it looks remarkable seeing a 4x4 sat helpless in a sandy pit, the AD4x4 members are not fazed. They have all the necessary equipment for dealing with any incident that may occur in this terrain.
With the convoy intact, we continue undulating deeper into the desert, surfing the sand effortlessly and pushing the powerful V6 engine of the Fortuner to its limit. We make our first stop at the top of a huge dune and take in the breath-taking views of an expansive sabkha (salt flat) below. This is the perfect opportunity to bring out the Frisbee and stretch our legs in the sand. We feel as if we are in a never-ending playground with nothing but sand as far as the eye can see. There are no telephone pylons (although amazingly, we have signal and 3G on our mobiles), no roads and no other humans in sight, just the occasional herd of gazelles or nomadic camels. We are in the proper desert, not the edge-of-the-road dunes most tour companies take you to. Everywhere we look is a work of art – nature at its best.
To get the adrenaline levels up again, we change vehicles and leave the comfort of the Fortuner to sit up front with Mahmood in his Jeep Wrangler. These things are made for the desert and Mahmood has been driving the dunes for as long as he can remember – we feel in good hands. ‘Let’s play,’ he says, and with a roar of the engine, we go racing towards a dune that appears almost vertical. Mahmood knows all the tricks of the trade, and is not afraid of showing them off. With the windows wide open, the Jeep swerves and we receive our first ‘sand shower’. Nothing says being in the desert quite like being covered head to toe in sand.
The excitement of hurtling towards the edge of a dune not knowing how steep the drop on the other side will be is addictive. No wonder the AD4x4 Club venture out to the Liwa Desert most weekends. Riding shotgun in the nippy Jeep is exhilarating, so when we decide the time is right (about 5.30pm) to find a camping spot for the night, we’re looking forward to a lay down.
In four hours on the sand we’ve clocked up 64km, according to our Garmin sat-nav system. Unless you’re an expert who regularly frequents the desert environment, you’ll need a sat-nav device and a minimum of three vehicles in your convoy for safety reasons.
After searching for the ideal camping spot, we agree to settle in a location not too far from the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort by Anantara. We set up camp where the dunes provide shelter from the wind, but where we’ll also have spectacular views when we unzip our tents in the morning. The time has come to put the products we picked up from Adventure HQ to the test. First out of the boot are the Oztrail Eco Swift Pitch 3 tents, and they’re a stroke of genius. The sun is rapidly going down, so there is little time to get ourselves set up for the night. The Eco Swift isn’t fazed – from the moment we unzip it from the carry case and release the elastic strap, it is ready. In approximately one second of pop-up brilliance, we have somewhere to sleep for the night, and it boasts more than enough space for a solitary camper.
The tents come with pegs, but we’re camping on sand, so to keep ourselves anchored we weigh the tent down with luggage. We chuck our sleeping bags and camping rolls inside the tents, grab the lamps and chairs, and head up to where Christophe is cooking up a storm in the ‘kitchen’. We set up the barbecue area away from our tents to avoid smoking them out. Though we are in the middle of nowhere, we’re being treated to smoked chicken breast, smoked duck, lamb koftas, chicken satays and tenderloin steak marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary. We light a camp fire, but the Oztrail Eclipse LED light lanterns come in handy for lighting up the rest of the circle. They last for hours, but they have a neatly stored wind-up mechanism to keep the LED bulbs going if they were to run out. The Oztrail Titan armchair is full of cleverly designed pockets and pouches – perfect for holding a cold drink after a long drive. Unlike many fold-away camping chairs, this one is robust and comfortable to sit on for a long period of time.
After gorging on fine food, we sit back and try to identify all the constellations above us. There are few places in the world that offer better stargazing opportunities.
Calling it a day, we use our lantern to guide us back to our tent and we test out the roll mat and sleeping bag. The microsmart synthetic filling of the sleeping bag provides excellent warmth, even in the cold desert night. It is suitable for temperatures down to -10˚, so we feel warm and snug, especially since the Oztrail Earth mat provides added comfort and protection from the cold sand underneath us.
As we lay in the comfort of our temporary home in the middle of the desert, we reflect on what has been an unforgettable experience. It’s refreshing to get away from the noise of the city. The desert offers complete silence; it’s a world away from the sound of traffic, airplanes, generators and thumping music.
We love being in the desert and appreciate its beauty, but never underestimate nature – always go well-equipped and prepared. The Rub’ al Khali is fast becoming our new favourite place, and dune bashing our new favourite activity. We enjoy one more drive through the desert in the morning before rejoining the main road and heading back to the city.
Abu Dhabi 4X4 Club. Membership is free. Members must have their own vehicle. Training for driving on dunes is provided and donations to the club are expected. www.ad4x4.com